I turned on the AC today for the first time in a while because the temperature hit 87 degrees here in Texas. And when I did so, a grinding sound permeated the walls of my house and shot straight across the living room.
Oh no, I thought in utter dismay. There’s something wrong with the AC.
This newest development is one in a long line of terribly timed developments that have occurred since I lost my job in February—the night before we moved into this (our first) house. It’s been a vortex of bills, emergencies, obligations and inconveniences that have derailed our finances and caused us to dip into our emergency savings for the first time.
It’s felt pretty awful.
The thing is, I’m terrified of unemployment. And I’m terrified not because of some abstract idea about how it might feel or how my life might play out if I can’t find a job for six or 10 or 15 months. I’m terrified because I’ve actually been in this situation before.
Last year it was for eight months and it was one of the darkest times in my life. Between 2009 and 2010, it was for 14 months, and it was again one of the blackest moments in my existence. Right now I’m swiftly moving into month three, and although I haven’t fallen into that extra dark place just yet, I really don’t want to get there again and I'm doing everything I can to beat it out of my psyche.
My feelings of terror really go deeper than those specific experiences, though, because life is a complex ball of emotions that pulls from different moments in time. I’ve also lost everything more than once (and because of long-term unemployment), and it’s an awful thing to put your remaining possessions in a tiny storage unit and transport yourself and your two cats into a small bedroom that doesn’t belong to you.
Being helplessly dependent on the kindness of someone else for food and shelter is infinitely humbling.
My terror also goes back to my memories of growing up poor. I remember tallying up my mother’s groceries on a calculator so that we didn’t arrive at the checkout with a bigger bill than we could pay. I remember too-tight shoes and holes in my jeans, because there was simply no money to upgrade.
I also remember eating ramen noodles for the last week of the month as a young adult, because the funds had run out and we didn’t get paid again for another week. It’s like living in a perpetual state of wanting.
So today I panicked a bit when I realized this noise would translate to another bill we had to pay out of an account that was already in deficit. It would just be $75 (I hoped), because we have a home warranty program, but $75 is a lot of money for us right now.
Seventy-five dollars is money I can’t replace because I haven’t found a source of income yet. Seventy-five dollars would buy a week of groceries. Seventy-five dollars here, and seventy-five dollars there, adds up to a whole lot more than seventy-five dollars.
If you’ve ever been long-term unemployed and have watched your bank account dwindle down to zero like water going down a shower drain, then you understand what it means to think that you might end up there again. That your finances will be ruined, that your home will be gone, that your life savings will evaporate.
And I share my own story and fears because I know so many others who are walking with me in this experience. I know people who have had to move, who have drained their retirement accounts, who have declared bankruptcy, and who even are on the verge of homelessness.
I know so many people.
So if you’re one of those people, I want to tell you that I understand how you feel and that you are not alone in your plight—or in your terror. Because there are others who are wearing the same shoes.
But I also have a new strategy to share that helps me manage my terror so that it doesn’t bury me (literally and metaphorically) in six feet of heavy dirt. The thing I'm doing now, and that I did today, was to just throw my hands up and say:
Okay. I can’t control everything and I can’t control this. I’m trying my very best. I’m networking, I’m applying, I’m putting good energy into the world and I’m helping people when I can. And I just can’t control the outcome. I can’t control the broken AC. I can’t control the $75. So why spend my time overcome with terror when everything could change tomorrow? Or next week? Or next month?
It’s a classic cognitive-behavioral technique that I’m still working to master.
Living in the present is really hard to do when you’re terrified, but it’s the only way to go if you want to find peace. Because you know what? Maybe you’ll lose everything tomorrow (although you probably won’t), but right now you have food. Right now you have shelter. Right now the grass is green and the sun is shining.
Right now you are still alive, and right now there is still hope of a better tomorrow because it hasn't unfolded yet.
And if the very worst happens? If you lose all of your money and if you have to sell your home and your jewelry or if <insert worst thing ever here>? Then you’ll start over. You’ll pick up the pieces and you’ll just start over.
Simple as that.
The Big Pause